In light of the recent incident at UP, that has now come to be known as Blackface, Perdeby decided to look at the history of blackface in popular culture.
Blackface, a person covering their face in a substance such as shoe polish in order to make their skin appear darker in colour, is usually done as a form of stereotypical parody and is greatly frowned upon in today’s society.
Even though blackface has no one particular root or genesis, it can be traced as far back as the 13th century, when slaves captured in west Africa were put on display for entertainment purposes in Portugal. As early as the 15th century, white actors used substances to make their skin appear darker in productions such as Shakespeare’s Othello.
In the early 19th century, “blackface clowns” gained fame in the United States as a part of vaudeville performances. In these performances, actors caricaturised black slaves, specifically those from the American south. These slaves, and particularly former slaves, were portrayed as gullible, indolent, imprudent and weak.
Blackface was widely commercialised by minstrel shows in the 1800s and in only a few decades these performances moved away from minstrel acts to movies. By the 1930s, blackface was popular in moving pictures as well as in advertising. Until as late as the 1940s, blackface was prominent in comic strips and in children’s cartoons such as Tom & Jerry and Bugs Bunny, although the majority of these scenes have since been cut out.
Today, blackface is regarded as dangerously offensive, especially in countries with a sensitive history in terms of racism, such as South Africa and the United States.
However, portrayals of blackface are not regarded as a taboo everywhere. For instance, the Netherlands celebrates St Nicholas Day in the form of Sinterklaas arriving along with his assistant Zwarte Piet, a pageboy whose face is painted black. This is regarded as an integral part of Dutch tradition instead of an offensive parody. A popular comic strip character in Mexico called Memín Pinguín is also a clear example of the blackface typecast. Since the 1940s, he has been a fundamental part of Mexican popular culture and is represented as being unintelligent and over-spirited.
In the United Kingdom a company called Robertson’s Jams had a blackface mascot by the name of Golly which they used until as late as 2002. In South Africa, the CapeMinstrels or Kaapse Klopse wear blackface for the annual Cape Minstrel Festival, although in this context it is not intentionally seen as offensive but rather as a part of the Cape’s rich tradition.
Local movie mogul Leon Schuster is also often seen donning full blackface for many of his film roles. A debate arose after Schuster appeared in a television advertisement in 2013 in blackface portraying a stock South African politician. The advertisement was removed from the air after it was chastised for being stereotypical and racist.
The controversial history of blackface is often overlooked by the general public, yet it is a matter that needs to be handled with great sensitivity, caution and tact because of its many negative associations.